Some of us never outgrow feeling like a kid in a candy shop. My mom is a very talented baker, which turns out to have been both a blessing and a curse: I (lovingly) blame her for my ridiculous sweet tooth. While a little sugar won't hurt you, consuming it in the quantities many Americans do could be more detrimental than we realized. In fact, recent studies call it downright toxic.
In a New York Times response to one of those studies, Mark Bittman wrote:
The next steps are obvious, logical, clear and up to the Food and Drug Administration. To fulfill its mission, the agency must respond to this information by re-evaluating the toxicity of sugar, arriving at a daily value — how much added sugar is safe?
The Huffington Post summarized the opinions of journalists like Bittman and Gary Taubes:
Sugar ... poses far greater dangers than cavities and love handles; it is a toxin that harms our organs and disrupts the body’s usual hormonal cycles. Excessive consumption of sugar, they say, is one of the primary causes of the obesity epidemic and metabolic disorders like diabetes, as well as a culprit of cardiovascular disease.
The thing is, sugar is hard to give up, and you don't have to get rid of it completely. (A life without the occasional macaron or cupcake is no life at all.) But making healthier choices is possible, especially when you have tools that make it easier. Here are a few step to consider if you're trying to cut back on sugar:
Know Your Sugar Habits and Plan Accordingly
According to Pam Bonney, MS, RD, CDN, most people have already picked their poison (sadly, perhaps literally) — say, a specific chocolate bar that they reach for again and again. If that is you, Bonney recommends quitting cold turkey. That means, if you tend to stock up on a particular snack, try not to buy it. Keeping it less easily accessible is the first step.
My sugar cravings, however, don't follow that pattern. I do not plan indulgences, nor do I do well with attempting that kind of foresight. But sometimes, after a rigorous workout, or just a bad day, a gelato store and I happen to be on the same corner at the same time, and ... If you’re like me, Bonney recommends a method designed to protect you from yourself. “Carry fruit in your bag because you have to distract yourself almost immediately,” Bonney advises. “Fruit with a little bit of protein from a plant source, a little bit of peanut butter, or a handful of nuts, creates a balanced snack and provides more satiety.” Another easy first step: Drink a lot of water throughout the day, with and without your snacks.
RECOGNIZE THE real SOURCE of your cravings
“Our very first experience of exceptional sweetness — a dollop of buttercream frosting on a parent’s finger; a spoonful of strawberry ice cream instead of the usual puréed carrots — is a gustatory revelation that generally slips into the lacuna of early childhood,” Ferris Jabr wrote for HuffPost. It’s important to recognize that sugar is a deeply ingrained, and for many of us, emotional habit. According to Bonney, “taste buds call out for more of what we give them. So, essentially, the more sugar you eat, the more sugar you crave. Habits are hard to break, but you can make better choices.”
If you love fruit, you’re already on the right path. I love fruit but know well that sometimes a bowl of cherries isn’t the same as cherry pie — regardless, we should at least recognize that the sugar contained in fruit (natural sugar) is a million times better for you than the two primary sources of added sugar in most American diets: table sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup. It’s still sugar and can provide the same satiety factor, but in the form nature intended. Bonney notes: “Comfort food is called that for a reason. If you think you have emotional eating habits, ask yourself two questions: ‘Am I gonna be happy if I eat this, or will I be miserable that I ate it?’ This should lead you to the answer to the second question, ‘Should I eat it or not?’ If the answer is yes, you will be happy, then go for it." Endlessly restricting yourself is a recipe for driving yourself cray-cray.
HAVE A PLAN FOR WHEN CRAVINGS HIT
Dr. Frank Lipman, director of Eleven-Eleven Wellness Center in New York City, recommends a careful, almost meditative three-step approach that is fantastic in its accessibility. Yes, it’s easier said than done, but curbing your cravings is a process and, to echo Bonney’s prior point, involves changing a very deeply fixed habit. Here's the plan Lipman outlined in an email to us:
"Take a deep breath. Acknowledging a craving is the first step to overcoming it. Use it as a trigger for a few minutes of mindful breathing and see if you can just sit with the desire but choose not to fulfill it."
"Celebrate your resolve. You didn’t succumb to your craving, and that is so commendable! Take a moment to recognize and appreciate the work you’re doing. It may sound silly, but the more you recognize your progress, the more empowered you’ll feel — even in just two weeks."
"Enjoy a healthy substitution. Sometimes the craving stalks us, despite our best efforts to hold it off. When it just won’t go away, a healthy treat that you really enjoy should do the trick."
If you’re feeling inspired and looking for a quick and approved substitute to get started, here’s a recipe for Key Lime Chia Pudding from Lipman's Be Well team:
1 can coconut milk
3 T chia seeds
Juice from 2 limes
Stevia to taste
Stir the ingredients above together for 15 seconds, then chill for as long as you can stand to wait!
The most important takeaway is simple and was reiterated for me most recently by a peer. “Everything in moderation is how our grandmothers did it,” my friend said casually the other day. “And mine has been healthy her whole life.”